(Photo: Giacomo Barbaro / Flickr)
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has been embroiled in national controversy after revelations that the department secretly infiltrated cities and states around the Northeast to spy on students, businesses and houses of worship - based not on any reason to suspect potential crime, but entirely based on the faith of individuals subjected to spying. Few government abuses could be more offensive to our nation's proud constitutional tradition, yet public polling reveals that a majority of observers fail to recognize the harm in unchecked domestic surveillance.
But critics have let the NYPD off too easily. This is not the first time the department has been caught with its institutional hands in the constitutional cookie jar. The NYPD's ongoing abuses reach well beyond Muslims, and their sum is unfortunately even worse than its parts.
NYPD spying threatens not just the rights of Muslim New Yorkers, or Muslims outside of New York, or colleges and universities, or environmentalists, or peace activists, or Ron Paul supporters, or officials in neighboring jurisdictions - but all of these groups, as well as the very fabric of our democracy.
First, the NYPD has long unapologetically profiled New Yorkers of color. Black and Latino pedestrians are confronted by searches for no reason beyond their skin color: they are stopped and frisked at nine times the rate of whites. When faced with evidence of racial profiling, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly attempted to justify documented bias by claiming that it helped gather intelligence. His answer poured Orwellian salt on a discriminatory wound, for which the NYPD has never been held accountable.
Second, the NYPD had already endured criticism for spreading propaganda in the form of a so-called "training" video produced by self-promoting entrepreneurs reflecting little (if any) actual expertise and deep-seated Islamophobia. Until being caught in its own web of lies, the NYPD denied institutional involvement in the film, how widely it was shown and even the commissioner's personal role in its production.
Third were revelations of spying on Shia mosques around the Northeast, not because the NYPD had any reason to think anyone had done anything wrong, but on the basis of nothing more than national origin. Our nation has been down this particular road before, when interning 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent during WWII in one of our nation's most shameful - and painfully un-American - episodes.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie correctly observed the NYPD's failure to learn lessons from 9/11. Commissioner Kelly should consider a history lesson, as he seems ignorant of the Japanese-American internment and why it was so offensive to American values, constitutional principles and foreign policy interests, and how the NYPD's abuses under his leadership reflect a disturbing continuation of the same pattern.
Fourth, the NYPD crafted its surveillance programs with help from the CIA, despite a statute prohibiting the agency from operating within the US. While fault lies with both the CIA and the NYPD, observers should recall that Congress imposed the ban on domestic CIA operations specifically because the agency's activities undermine democracy wherever they are practiced.
It's one thing to conduct unaccountable covert activities in other countries. (Though even those activities present profound risks by alienating populations abroad that, in many countries, have grown to hate ours - not because of our freedoms, but because our intelligence agencies routinely support oppressive leaders friendly to Washington's perceived interests). As the Church Committee recognized in 1976, however, allowing the CIA to operate within the US would undermine our own democracy.
Congress was right: the fifth set of NYPD abuses, repeatedly violating First Amendment rights, reflects precisely the problem that Congress foresaw a generation ago. The department's use of CIA tactics has tarred and feathered entire communities, and Muslims are hardly the first victims.
Last September, the world watched as participants in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations faced an unprovoked police attack on the Brooklyn Bridge, despite prior settlements and judgments from the City for earlier, similar abuses. And the Handschu consent decree (the guidelines violated by the NYPD's recent spying programs) was first established to stop the NYPD from spying on peace groups.
I visited New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention to help organize grassroots protests, particularly of our political establishment's foolish and irresponsible militarism. In an action presaging both the substantive concerns and cultural creativity of the Occupy movement, a longtime friend, who happens to be a prolific writer, handed out doughnuts on Wall Street while a few others tried to erect a colorful "barrier" across an alley using a ball of yarn.
Apparently aware of their plans, undercover NYPD officers arrested them within seconds. How did the NYPD know the group's plans? And why was the NYPD worried about yarn, when the corruption taking root across Wall Street at the very same time posed an existential risk to our national economy? Neither question has ever been asked, let alone answered.
I watched as NYPD officers arrested my friend, tie her plastic handcuffs tight and then laugh at her when she tearfully asked for them to be loosened. Held overnight in conditions that later prompted lawsuits, she suffered wrist injuries so severe that she couldn't write for years.
She was never a threat to public safety. And while the NYPD seemed not to care, everyone would be better off had the people of New York been spared yet another court judgment to fix the police department's repeated disregard for First Amendment rights. Since vindicating her civil rights after the NYPD's abuses, my friend obtained a divinity degree from an Ivy League university and will soon receive a law degree from another.
Her Muslim classmates at both schools were being secretly watched by NYPD agents. These most recently revealed (the sixth set of) abuses entailed surveillance of entire communities, including businesses and schools, entirely because of the faith of their owners, employees, customers, or students. Their rights of belief, association, speech and equal protection were all violated in one fell swoop - but they weren't the only victims.
Universities suffer when ideas are chilled. Our entire society suffers when people become scared to speak their minds, but universities have long been the canaries in that particular coal mine given their purpose of providing an open forum for discussion. While Muslim students were those targeted by the NYPD, it will be hard for any student, anywhere, to raise controversial ideas without wondering which government agency is watching. That's one reason that professors and administrators from universities across the Northeast have so vocally opposed the NYPD's biased, unchecked and unapologetic spying.
Beyond universities, entire cities and towns well beyond New York were essentially invaded by a lawless NYPD operation using CIA tactics that have inspired revolutions around the world. The elected leaders of those communities, like Mayor Corey Booker and Governor Christie, have raised their voices in forceful protest.
Who will resolve their complaints?
Perhaps even more disturbing than any of these particular violations is the answer: no institution is poised to oversee the NYPD. Congress lacks jurisdiction and the New York City Council lacks the resources and the political will to conduct effective oversight, even though the NYPD is under its jurisdiction.
Apologists for the NYPD's disturbing litany of abuses may be tempted to justify them based on supposed necessity. Yet, none of these abuses were ever even remotely helpful for public safety or national security. Neutral oversight could help expose the thin justification for similar constitutional offenses.
Moreover, oversight could help address not only the NYPD's abuses, but also its institutional failure. After all, the job of police agencies includes ensuring not only public safety, but also the rights that have made our country great for 200 years. They are the same rights that inspired the world to follow our example, the very same rights that, if respected, would still leave ample space for the NYPD to do its job.
Given the striking absence of any oversight of its activities, the question is not whether secret NYPD surveillance of Muslim businesses, or students well outside its jurisdiction, was ever defensible on the basis of their beliefs. If nothing else, it frontally assaults fundamental rights protected by the agreement on which our nation was founded, violates the jurisdiction of neighboring cities and states and could set a precedent for any religious minority's marginalization in the future.
The real question, which no one is poised to answer, is: what other skeletons lurk in the NYPD's closet?